The story of HMS Venomous

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Calais and Boulogne

2 - 26 May 1940

Captions for illustrations followed by end notes with live links
to documents cited

HMS Venomous completed repairs at Portsmouth just one week before the German blitzkrieg of the Low Countries and France began on the 10 May. Instead of escorting troop carriers to France she took part in operations off the Dutch coast during the invasion of the Netherlands. On the 15 May she picked up 46 Jewish refugees on a Dutch lifeboat, the Zeemanshoop (Seaman's Hope) and a combined naval and territorial army demolition team returning from Ijmuiden on the Dutch harbour tug, Atjeh.

On the 21 May she was sent to Calais to bring back secret anti-submarine warfare equipment from Sangatte but also returned with platinum from Courtauld's rayon factory valued at a million pounds and half the British community. The next day she and her sister V & Ws took the Welsh and Irish Guards to Boulogne only to evacuate them on the 23 May. They were dive bombed by Stuka and fought German tanks with her 4.7-inch guns in the narrow inner harbour. Venomous ends the chapter under repair at Devonport.


Disembarking Royal Marines and their stores, Hook of Holland, 12 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

The Dutch lifeboat, Zeemanshoop, crowded with refugees and flying the Dutch flag
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

The harbour tug, Atjeh, from Ijmuiden
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

The Dutch refugees on the deck of Venomous
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Cdr M.G. Goodenough RN (with binoculars), the demolition party (with helmets) and Dutch naval officers
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Looking towards the stern on the starboard side as Venomous speeds to Dover
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Albert Ratcliffe with his young wife Renée and his son, Pierre, and daughter, Gisèle, before the war
Courtesy of Pierre Ratcliffe

The entrance to Calais harbour showing the Gare Maritime and the Hangar Paul
Courtesy of the University of Texas

Refugees boarding Venomous at Calais, 21 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Portrait page of officers and crew
Desperate times aboard Venomous under Lt Cdr Cdr J.E.H. McBeath DSO RN

“No 1”, Act Lt Cdr Angus “Bloody” MacKenzie and his CO, Lieut. Cdr John McBeath
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Sub Lt A.F. Esson RNR. In background ‘Guns’, Gunner (T) R.K. Thompson RN

Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR, Gunnery Officer, 1940-1

 ‘Chief’, Warrant Engineer A.E. Parkes RN, 1940

Able Seaman Roy Stallard received the DSM for the Boulogne action.

Able Seaman Sydney Compston

CPO Hugh McGeeney, aboard HMS Devonshire, 1943

Venomous escorting Mona’s Queen to Boulogne, 22 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR
View from Venomous of troops disembarking from Mona’s Queen at Boulogne, 22 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Troops on the Quai Chanzy by the Gare Maritime after disembarking at Boulogne, 22 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Embarking refugees, including nuns and orphans with their teachers at Boulogne, 22 May 1940
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

HMS Venomous leaving Boulogne with the sisters and orphan children aboard
The swing bridge, the Pont Marguet, is visible in the distance.
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Refugees from Boulogne on the voyage back to Dover
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

The port of Boulogne in 1944
United States, Office of Strategic Services, Research and Analysis Branch
Courtesy of the Lewis Map Library, University of Princeton. Reference MAX G5834.01.001.032.

Plan showing the position of Wild Swan, Venomous and Venetia on 23 May 1940
Drawn by Hugh McGeeney. Courtesy of Monica Budden.

The bend in the narrow harbour entrance with the Gare Maritime on the Quai Chanzy opposite
Photographed by Bill Forster in February 2012

Eric Pountney, the Telegraphist in Venomous, from 1939 until October 1943, kept copies of naval signals received at Boulogne and Dunkirk.
Courtesy Erica and Angie Pountney

Vice Admiral Ramsay orders the evacuation of the troops, Operation Buttercup.
The signal was sent at 1723/23 but received at 1747 by Eric Pountney in Venomous.
Courtesy Erica and Angie Pountney

HMS Venetia on fire leaving harbour stern first
The Britannia Monument can just been at the entrance to the harbour on the far left.
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

HMS Venomous is firing her guns in the background of this painting commissioned by the Welsh Guards.
Courtesy of Welsh Guards Regiment

Burning truck on the quayside photographed from Venomous as she leaves Boulogne
Courtesy of Sir Beville Stanier

Boulogne photographed from Venomous as she leaves the harbour
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

The site of the Guards last stand at the Gare Maritime
Copyright Reserved


1. The Welsh Guard’s War Diary, NA Ref. WO 166/4113.

2.  Enemy air attacks. From The Commanding Officer HMS Venomous to Captain (D) 16th Destroyer Flotilla; dated 21 May 1940. In: 1940-42 Enemy air attacks on RN and Merchant shipping (NA Ref: ADM 199/100).

3.  For a general account of British forces in the Netherlands during the five day war see: https://www.tracesofwar.com/articles/2533/British-troops-in-the-Netherlands-in-May-1940.htm

4.  The North Goodwin Sands, a treacherous part of the English Channel, is the grave of many a sailor and ship. The routine North Goodwin patrol was described by Sam Lombard-Hobson, First Lieutenant on HMS Whitshed, in his book, A Sailor’s War (Orbis Publishing, 1983).

5.  Loet Velman’s parents took him to the Dutch East Indies to resume his interrupted high school education. He was enlisted in the Dutch army, captured by the Japanese and spent three and a half years as a POW working on the Burma to Siam railway as described in his book Long Way back to the River Kwai (Arcade Publishing, 2003) and briefly here: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/LoetVelmans.html

6.  The photographs of the Zeemanshoop captured the imagination of Bill Forster, the publisher of this book, and he told the story of the voyage and the lives of student crew and passengers on his web site: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Zeemanshoop.html
A reunion was held at Scheveningen on the 14 May 2015, the 75th anniversary of the voyage, attended by 95 year old Karel Dahmen and 92 year old Loet Velmans. You can read about the reunion and see a video of the Zeemanshoop on this page: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/anniversary2.html

7.  Half the Dutch navy went to Britain when Holland surrendered, many in their own ships.  Cdr Goodenough’s Report on Operation XD.A (Ijmuiden)  is contained in Operations off Dutch, Belgian and French coasts: reports, 1940 (NA ADM 199/795). For a more general account of Cdr Goodenough’s mission and the work of the  KFRE “demo teams” see: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Atjeh.html

8.  The names of the 46 men and women on the Zeemanshoop were written on the back of a chart during the voyage. The families of most of them have been traced and their stories told on the publisher’s web site: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Zeemanshoop_chart.html

9.  On the 28 October 1918 a German submarine (UB116) attempting to enter Scapa Flow through Hoxa Sound in the south was detected by an indicator loop and destroyed with mines detonated from the shore. This was
the first U-boat to be detected and sunk in this way and the last U-boat to be sunk in World War I. The patrol system to detect U-boats in the Dover Straits in 1940 is detailed in A/S Patrol in Dover Straits, a report to Vice Admiral Bertram H. Ramsay RN, Flag Officer Dover (In: Dover Command, War Diaries for Period Feb 1st – Dec 31st 1940, NA ADM 199/360). Dr. Richard Walding, a Research Fellow at the School of Science, Griffith University, Australia, has reported on his research into indicator loops at indicatorloops.com 

10.  Sangatte Loop Station, France. Report on dismantling and embarkation of Stores; O/C, A/S Fixed Defences, Dover. (NA ADM 199/795)

11.  Lt Arthur Taylor RNVR was interviewed by Colin Frame for an article in the Evening News and Star, Unsung Heroes of Calais (Monday 17 May 1965).

12.  The second edition of Frédéric Turner's privately published biographical dictionary of British subjects interned after the fall of France contains 604 pages and 2,300 entries (Les Oublies de 39-45: La rafle des Britanniques; Arras: Editions, JAFT, 2011. ISBN 978-2-9538021-1-5). Some families were split apart with the men interned at Illag VIIIH at Tost (Toszek) in Upper Silesia. Bill Forster has told the stories of some of them here: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Calais.html

13.  To find out what happened to the Ratcliffe family see: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Ratcliffe.html

14.  Courtaulds invented rayon and was the world’s largest manufacturers of “artificial silk” (rayon). Tommy Davies, a Courtaulds Director who worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) “…went over to Calais shortly before the Germans arrived there and removed several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of platinum from Courtauld’s factory.” Patrick Howarth, Undercover: The Men and Women of the Special Operations Executive (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980), p. 10.

15.  The signal form was kept as a souvenir by George Speechley, Visual Signalman, who joined HMS Venomous on the 31 July 1939 one month before the outbreak of war.
16.  History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series; edited by J.R.M. Butler. See the link to The War In France And Flanders 1939-1940; by Major L.F. Ellis C.V.O., C.B.E., DSO, M.C. (London: HMSO, 1954), p153.

17.  The problems Lt Col Donald J Dean VC faced in turning the willing but elderly reservists into an effective labour force to support the fighting troops are described in Donald Dean VC by Terry Crowdy and Susan Bavin (London: Pen and Sword Military, 2010). He found that the smart and energetic young officers of the Great War had “sometimes turned into a stout middle-aged man with little energy and a big thirst” and one private “asked me in strict confidence whether he could continue to draw his old age pension as well as his army pay!”

18.  The nuns, teachers and orphans spent five happy years at the Smyllum Park Orphanage in the small town of Lanark midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh and an article in the Boulogne edition of La Voix du Nord led to two of them being traced, revisiting Lanark and telling their story on the publisher’s web site, see: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Boulogne.html

19.  To find out more about Gisèle Gregson’s escape and what happened to her husband, George Gregson, see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Gregson_Family.html

20.  The territorial soldiers of the KFRE were mainly employees of the Blue Circle cement works at Gravesend and were led by the works manager, Cliffiord Brazier, a sapper in the Great War, and author of  XD Operations - Secret British missions denying oil to the Nazi's by C.C.H. Brazier (Pen and Sword, 2005) edited  by his son. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_Fortress_Royal_Engineers#XD_operations

21.  Operation XD Report on Calais (Party F) by Cdr Casper S.B. Swinley RN can be seen in: Operations off Dutch, Belgian and French coasts: reports, 1940, NA ADM 199/795

22.   See the Report of Proceedings for HMS Verity written by Lt E.L. Jones on the 27 May, the day his CO, Lt. Cdr. Arthur R.M. Black RN, was seriously wounded off Dunkirk. In: Operations off French, Belgian and Dutch coasts, NA ADM 199/667; see also the Report of General Brownrigg, 29 May 1940, NA CAB 106/243

23.  A detailed account of the battle for Boulogne by Jon Cooksey was published as a volume in the series on Battleground Europe: The Channel Ports as Boulogne: 20 Guards Brigades Fighting Defence – May 1940 (Leo Cooper, 2002) ISBN 0 85052 814 3.
See http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_boulogne_1940.html for a brief account of the battle.
24.  Vice Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay (1883-1945) is mainly remembered today for organising the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk but also assisted Eisenhower in planning the naval part of the D-Day landings. He was killed in a plane crash in January 1945 but his story is told in Full Circle: Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay; by Rear Admiral W.S. Chalmers. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959. His wartime headquarters at Dover are in the care of English Heritage and contain an exhibition telling the story of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the the troops from Dunkirk. See: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/things-to-see-and-do/operation-dynamo/

25.  For a more detailed analysis of the tidal position and daylight hours at Boulogne on 23 May 1940 and the influence they had on the evacuation of the troops please see Battle of Boulogne - Tidal and Astronomical Time Line 23/24 May by Frank Donald. http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/tide.html

26.  For an overview of events see Operations, Vice Admiral Dover. May 18 – 24, 1940. Evacuations at Boulogne In: Dover Command, War Diaries for Period Feb 1st – Dec 31st 1940 (NA ADM 199/795)

The description of events is partly based on the well informed but fictional account of HMS Whitshed written by Lt Cdr George Stitt and published as HMS Wideawake: destroyer and preserver (Unwin Hayman, 1943) to conform with wartime censorship rules. Stitt did not serve on Whitshed but knew her CO, Cdr E.R. Conder RN, and had access to contemporary records. Cdr Kimmins who wrote the Forward to Wideawake had served with Stitt as a Midshipman in Orion in late 1920, and commisioned the book in 1943 when he was in the Admiralty Press Division. Stitt's account is more precise as to times and dates than A Sailors War (London: Orbis Publishing, 1983) by Sam Lombard-Hobson, the first lieutenant on HMS Whitshed, which was published forty years later.

The Reports of Proceedings written by the commanding officers and the naval signals received and sent by the destroyers are the most dependable record of events.
The RoP are in the National Archives at Kew. See Operations off French, Belgian and Dutch coasts (ADM 199/667) They can also be seen online as PDFs by clicking on the ship names:  HMS Keith, HMS Whitshed, HMS Venomous, HMS Wild Swan, HMS Vimy, HMS Verity, HMS Windsor and HMS Vimiera and in  Dover Command: War Diaries, Feb 1st – Dec 31st 1940 (ADM 199/360) for HMS Venetia.

28.  The recorded interview with Ian Nethercott in the Sound Collection of the Imperial War Museum, London differs in places from the version included by Ian Hawkins in Destroyer: an anthology of first-hand accounts of the war at sea, 1939-1945 (London: Conway Maritime, 2006). The IWM recording can be heard online at: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80007000

29.  Lt Col Donald J Dean VC was very critical of the Welsh Guards in his description of the part played by the 5th Group AMCP (later renamed the Pioneers) at Boulogne in Donald Dean VC by Terry Cowdry and Susan Bavin (London: Pen and Sword Military, 2010).

30.  The message was released by Vice Admiral Dover at 1723 and then went to the Dover WT office and was transmitted in morse code, probably on a broadcast read by all ships. The messages were encypted before transmission and decrypted on arrival. This could account for the 25 minutes delay between release and delivery of the message in clear. For a description of wireless telegraphy aboard destroyers in the early years of the war see: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/telegraphists.html and for a list of the naval signals received and sent by the wireless telegraphist in Venomous see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/naval_signals.html

31.  This description is taken from two letters written by former AB Donald T.W. Harris of HMS Vimy to the author, Richard Hough, on the 5 February 1985 which are in the documents collection of the Imperial War Museum, London: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030000290

32.   Harris, ibid 30.  The First Lieutenant who took command and wrote the Report of Proceedings (NA ADM 199/667) on the 24 May was Lt Adrian Paul Northey RN  Lt Cdr Colin G.W. Donald RN died that night and was buried at sea off Dover on Monday 27 May. His parents travelled by overnight sleeper from Edinburgh to be present. His son, Frank Donald, joined the Royal Navy and held the same rank as his father when he retired. You can read more about the life of Lt Cdr C.G.W. Donald RN in Chapter Three and on the publisher’s web site: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/CGWDonald.html

33.  Nethercott Op. Cit. 27

34.  See Force Buttercup at Boulogne and follow the link to the report by two of the platoon commanders in December 1940 (the Naval Company Commander, Lt J.E. James RN, was in hospital recovering from his wounds) on the Naval Party landed to cover demolitions at Boulogne, May 1940 (National Archives Ref. ADM1/11241).

35.  One man's war at sea: a memoir of service in HMS Albatross, HMS Keith, HMS Phoebe, HMS Sheffield and HMS Venerable from 1939 until 1945; by Captain Graham Lumsden. Copies of this illustrated memoir, spiral bound in white card are held by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Ref 1990/222) and the Imperial War Museum, London; Ref IWM Doc 128268 Lumsden is also quoted by Cooksey, Op. Cit. 18

36. HMS Vimy had been ordered back to Dover by Lt Cdr John L. Younghusband, the CO of Wild Swan, who on arrival off Boulogne at 1920 was under the impression that the CO of Whitshed was killed or wounded and no longer in command and as the next most senior officer he was now Flotilla Leader. See the Report of Proceedings for HMS Wild Swan in
Operations off French, Belgian and Dutch coasts; ADM 199/667

37.  Conder became acting Captain (D) on the death of Simson on Keith and wrote the Flotilla Report covering events from 1749/23 when Simson received the signal from VAD ordering the evacuation until 0355/24 when Vimiera berthed at Dover with 1,400 troops. The NA reference is not known but a draft of Conder’s report (provided by the son of Lt Cdr R.B.N. Hicks RN, the CO of HMS Vimiera) can be seen on the publisher’s web site. For the service career of Conder see: http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersC2a.html#Conder_ER

38.  Lt Richard le Hunte (“Sam”) Lombard-Hobson RN, the first lieutenant on HMS Whitshed, vividly describes her part in this action in his book,  A Sailor's War (St Martins Press, 1983). For his service career see: http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersL2.html#Lombard_Hobson_SRleH

39.  The part played by HMS Wild Swan in the evacuation of the troops from Boulogne is described by Peter Smith in HMS Wild Swan: One Destroyer's War 1939-1942 (London: William Kimber & Co, 1985) as well as by her CO in his Report of Proceedings on Operation "XD" One and Evacuation of Boulogne 23 May 1940 at the NA in Operations off French, Belgian and Dutch coasts (ADM 199/667).

40.  The account that follows is based on McBeath’s report Action off Boulogne on 23 May 1940 (ADM 199/667) to Captain (D) 16th Destroyer Flotilla (copies to Vice Admiral Dover, CiC Western Approaches and CO HMS Whitshed) and Bob Moore’s interviews with surviving crew members in the 1980s.

41.  See HMS Venetia: report of Proceedings off French coast and Boulogne Harbour 21st – 25th May 1940 written by by the senior surviving officer, Lt Rudolf J.M. Wratislaw RN. In: Dover Command: War Diaries for Period Feb 1st – Dec 31st 1940 (NA ADM 199/360). Sub Lt Denis  H. Jones RNR was awarded the DSC but died when HMS Venetia was mined and sunk in the Thames estuary on the 19 October 1940.

42. Sir Alexander Beville Gibbons Stanier (1899-1995) described the action at Boulogne in a recorded interview in the Sound Archive of the IMW (Reference 7175) which can be heard online and in his memoirs privately published after his death by his son, Sir Beville Stanier, as Sammy’s Wars (1998). Sir Beville Stanier wrote the introduction to the book by Jon Cooksey, p. 20.

43.  War Diaries of the Irish Guards. Report on operations of 2nd. Battalion Irish Guards at Boulogne, 1940 May 21-23. (NA CAB 106/226) and  Report on the defence and evacuation of Boulogne by 20th Guards Brigade, 1940 May 21-23, by Brigadier W. A. Fox-Pitt; includes map. (NA CAB 106/230). See also: http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/31466-report-on-evacuation-of-boulogne-20-guards-brigade/
    The  four reel recorded interview with Brigadier W. A. Fox-Pitt about the Battle for Boulogne in the Sound Collection at the Imperial War Museum, London, can be listened to online: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80006852

44.  According to the combat report of the Welsh Guards three French tanks had been captured by the Germans and were used against the Allied forces but Peter Smith in an e-mail to the author on the 8 February 2009 claims they were actually German tanks.

45.  Boulogne: Damage reports to Venomous and Venetia can be found at the National Archives in ADM 267/101 Shell and bomb. The unemotional factual description contrasts with the devastation shown in the accompanying photographs of HMS Venetia.

46.  From  HMS Vimiera Dairy of Events 1030/Thurs 23 May - 0400/Friday 24 May, provided by Roger Hicks Jr. Roger Hicks obituary was published in The Times, 27 October 1997. For his service career see: http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersH5.html#Hicks_RBN

47.  Op. Cit. 17.

Report on near-miss bomb and machine-gun damage to HMS Venomous during attack by sixty Junker 87 bombers before entering Boulogne harbour on 23 May 1940. NA Ref. ADM 267/101 (Shell and Bomb). The Wireless Telegraphy Operator, Eric Arnold Poultney (1918-73), was posted to HMS Venomous at Rosyth on the 31 July 1939 and remained aboard until October 1943. He kept copies of many of the signals received and sent by Venomous at Boulogne and Dunkirk and was also a fine photographer whose photographs are included in this new edition of A Hard Fought Ship. See: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Pountney.html

49.  Welsh Guards War Diary, NA Ref. WO 166/4113

50. See: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/CrewList-30May1940.html

51.  Op. Cit. 36.

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